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Fine feathers

Published Sep 7, 2007


'White-faced southern giant petrel!' Ross Wanless, our guide, shouted as a large white bird swooped past the boat and headed for the horizon. "Quick! Follow that bird!"

The skipper obliged. He spun the boat 90 degrees and gunned the throttle, but we hadn't a hope.

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The ghostly giant petrel was already almost out of sight.

Earlier, when the boat was doing about 20 knots on the way out of False Bay, cormorants and gannets overtook us with ease.

They flew so fast that in Joburg they'd be booked for speeding.

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We returned to our course, passing through the Washing Machine, the turbulent water off Cape Point, en route to the fishing grounds on the edge of the continental shelf, 32 nautical miles to the south. This was birding with a difference - out to sea to encounter some of those extraordinary voyagers of the air, the pelagic, or deep sea, birds.

Wanless, an ornithologist at the University of Cape Town, is the director of Cape Town Pelagics, which runs the trips to raise money for albatross conservation. The white bird was a rarity, he explained.

About one percent of the southern giant petrel population might be the white morph. In four years of boat trips to see pelagic birds, he had spotted only two.

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Cape Point was shadowed in the early morning, a brooding presence of rock. Its ancient history was visible in the boundary between the basement granite at its foot and the layers of Cape sandstone heaped upon it. How many thousands of sailors must have been relieved to see that lump of rock, I thought, because at the end of a long voyage it meant that fresh food, fresh water and - with luck - fresh female company would be waiting ashore.

A few more sailors probably saw it when they didn't really want to - at the height of a raging storm, with their ship being driven helplessly towards the rocks.

I decided not to think too far down that route, and instead concentrated on determining the difference between sooty shearwaters and white-chinned petrels (easy - the latter has a visible white beak).

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Their flight was mesmerising as they skimmed and swooped among the swells, wingtips almost touching the surface. And then our first albatross - a shy albatross, Thalassarche cauta - came cruising by, riding the wind. Out in the fishing grounds we found a small local long-line vessel about to pull in its lines.

Birds were zooming around, waiting for dropped fish: white-chinned petrels and sooty shearwaters in abundance; neat black-and-white pintado petrels; even some little Wilson's storm petrels; subantarctic skuas and southern giant petrels; shy albatross, black-browed albatross and Indian and Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross.

Long-line fishing is dangerous for pelagic birds, and responsible for catastrophic reductions in numbers of certain species. Local licensed vessels haveto use mitigation measures that reduce bird "bycatch".

The real problem remains with the big illegal fishing fleets in international waters, which are impossible to police.

The dangerous time, too, is when the lines are being played out, with baited hooks, off the stern of a vessel.

The boat we found didn't seem to be pulling in much of a catch. All the same, dead fish began appearing on the surface, either knocked off the hooks as undesirable, or detached by accident.

Most were an unfortunate species called an eelfish, inedible even for the birds, which ignored them.

Some Cape fur seals had turned up, but they didn't want the eelfish, either.

Where more tasty fish floated, there was a fracas of birds and seals all scrapping for food.

The birds would alight on the water, or patter their feet on the surface and make running take-offs, the lucky ones with a beakful of fish. And then, voila!

There it was again, the ghostly white giant petrel. I assumed it was the same bird, but Wanless shook his head. Unlikely, he said. But yes, to see two white-faced southern giant petrels in one day was indeed remarkable. The bird swooped and battled in the fray, unaware of its star status. Like everybody else in the queue, all it wanted was a decent bite of fish.

There were some smallish birds in the crowd, white undersides, black topsides, that to my inexperienced eye looked like mini-albatross. Fortunately, I figured it out before asking the whole boat what they were: um, seagulls. But it was an indication of the size of the pelagic birds, because the Cape gull, which is what these were, is a hefty bird when he's at home.

Out there, among the ocean-cruising species, the Cape gull looked like a scrappy little thing, a Greyhound at a party of Great Danes.

These pelagics weren't the biggest of them all. We had hoped to see some of the great albatrosses - a wandering albatross or one of the royals, but the white giant petrels had used up our quota of rare-bird luck. No matter - it was enough just to watch the birds in action.

Here was a symphony of flight, a perfection of evolution, a casual demonstration of superb adaptation and skill.

I could have watched them all day, but an hour or two later the lines were in and - like the birds and seals - it was time to move on, in our case, back to Simon's Town.

Next up, penguins. It was no accident that I was based near Boulders Beach, home to the famous colony of little African penguins. In the evening, around the rocky area to the south of the Boulders walkway, there were penguins everywhere; waddling up the rocks, along the paths in twos and threes, up the slopes near the garden walls, tucked into burrows under bushes.

A party of Arabs was taking pictures of each other standing behind obliging penguins. (I knew they were Arabs because their tour guide was talking into his phone, arranging dinner for them.) Their children were fascinated by the birds, which appeared not to mind the attention at all.

Up near the parking lot, a wooden gate with a sign saying "please shut the gate" was presumably intended to keep the birds off the road. But I found a group of penguins waiting in front of it, wearing expressions of polite expectation. Butter wouldn't have melted in their beaks!

Nearby, two young Arab women in headscarves stood staring at them apprehensively.

"Shoo," I clapped my hands at the penguins, "you can't go out!"

Off they waddled, looking piqued. The women smiled shyly and dashed through the gate as though afraid of a strategic massed penguin attack.

I returned to Avian Leisure, a comfortable birder-friendly establishment high on the hill behind Boulders, where Cape sugarbirds, orange-breasted sunbirds, white-eyes and bulbuls were busy in the fynbos garden.

After nightfall, a rare wildlife treat: porcupines arrived to feast on butternut that had been put out for them. They are very strange animals. With their smokey blond manes and skirts of quills, they reminded me rather incongruously of a Camilla Parker-Bowles hat.

The following morning, 6am, and it was still dark. Orion balanced on his head over the mountains. The Roman Rock lighthouse blinked steadily out in the bay. Little by little, light flushed peach and orange until finally the sun appeared, turning False Bay to a rippled field of blue and gold under a clear sky.

Driving on the Cape Point road, en route to the park and more fynbos birds, I came across a small traffic jam caused by the chacma baboons. One was sitting on top of a blue Volkswagen Beetle, which was moving very slowly downhill.

Judging by their scowls, the two elderly women in the car were not enjoying their African wildlife experience. A big male baboon eyed me speculatively.

Oh, no, I thought, if that thing climbs on top of my freaky little hire car the roof will collapse and I'll end life as a jam sandwich. He walked on by. He probably thought the car was a species of tortoise.

Down among the boulders again, where the bushes smelt of penguin poop and the sea hissed and splashed over banks of pebbles, TS Eliot's "prayer of the bone on the beach" came to mind.

And I thought that, if I held a shell to my ear, I would hear all the voices of the souls who had passed by these shores through time. That and the grunting of an impatient penguin letting me know that I was blocking the path, and that if I was quite finished, thank you, it would like to proceed to the sea.

- Avian Leisure, above Boulders Beach, is a birder-friendly establishment endorsed by Birdlife SA, and excellent value. It offers top-notch self-catering accommodation, bird guiding and tours.

- Phone: 021 786 1414; Cell:083 272 2455 Email: [email protected] or visit the website:

- Trish Murphy is an independent traveller and is not hosted by the establishments she visits.

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